Cooking – Back to Basics, Part 2 – the Kitchen Store Cupboard…

Or, in my case, the actual cupboard, plus a dead fridge freezer pressed into service as a cupboard, and several shelves on a desk in the living room, along with a giant, American style fridge freezer. I don’t know what they anticipated tenants eating in this building – Meals on Wheels, maybe – but storage is abysmal.

Before I dive in, apologies for any uncorrected typos I might have missed. At 14 pages and 4.8k words, there are almost certainly some, I’m afraid. Links are supposed to be blue. If any are still black – this theme’s annoying default setting – please let me know.

OK – carry on…

The cupboard on the wall above my workspace contains those items – herbs, spices, sauces, stock-making materials – in regular use. Anything that normally lives in the fridge – a wide selection of sauces, from ketchup (both tomato and mushroom), to Nam Pla – is brought to my workspace.

For me, standing is extremely painful, walking more so, and I’m permanently exhausted, so it makes sense to have everything gathered in one place, including all the fresh ingredients for the dish to be made, before I start – in the manner of a restaurant kitchen’s mise en place.

My knives are on a magnetic rack on the cupboard door in front of me, the diamond steel to keep them sharp is on the wall by the mixer (see photo), and the other door holds a Kindle Paperwhite which, in the fullness of time, when I’ve retyped them, where needed, and sent them to Amazon for conversion from Word to Kindle format, will hold all my recipes plus a few cookbooks for inspiration (I rarely, if ever use anyone else’s recipes).

All of that means, except for frequent rest breaks, I have no need to move from the spot – everything I need is to hand.

The following photos show my entire worktop from sink to microwave, but my actual workspace, which is tiny, is just 28” long by 13”** deep and bounded on 3 sides by equipment, another reason for the discipline of the mise en place. They also show my knives and Kindle on the closed cupboard doors. Mysteriously, the camera has rendered the monochrome image of a fruitcake in blue. There’s also a toaster, but that’s currently on the floor!

**Everything I make, from a simple cheese sandwich to a batch of home-made pork sausages, from a fruit cake, loaded with cherries, to a couple of crusty organic loaves – comes out of that small space.

My point?  Simple – while a big kitchen is nice, and makes life easier, a skilful cook can work successfully in a space the size of a pillow-case!

Kitchen tablet  My Workspace

Notes on Storage.

Two things are vitally important when it comes to the storage of volatile ingredients like herbs and spices – they need to be protected from light, air, and heat, so your store cupboard needs to be away from direct sunlight, radiators and, of course, the cooker, and the doors need to be kept closed.

Even in a dark and cool cupboard, the more delicate spices, like sweet paprika, can deteriorate – this is why, presumably, it’s traditionally sold in tins. I buy mine in bulk, decant it into a glass jar, screw the cap down and stash it in the dark. And still it lost colour and flavour. So now I still keep it in a tightly-capped jar, but in the fridge, which has solved the problem. It’s not that I have it a long time, either – it’s my favourite spice and I get through a lot of it – it’s just extremely delicate.

Glass, screw-capped jars are the best medium for storage, followed by PET or other food-grade plastic. For bulk storage of things like pulses and rice, large Kilner jars are hard to beat. Not cheap, but unless you drop them, they’ll last a lifetime. Again, large PET jars are good too and, if you’re of the fumble-fingered tendency, are unbreakable.

I recycle a lot of jars. Not as many as I’d like as, even though glass and PET are supposedly impermeable, some smells are impossible to remove.

Bon Maman conserve jars are great for medium quantities of pretty much anything, and in PET, Copella fruit juice bottles, the 1.25-litre size, will hold a kilo of rice, lentils, or other small pulses, and the Nature’s Finest range of bottled fruit yields PET jars in a variety of sizes.

If I have to buy jars, I either get them at the supermarket, or here .

I mostly buy Schwartz brand herbs and spices. I keep them in their jars, with the foil-coated seal still in place (lift an edge to get at the contents). I have a small olive-wood spoon, bought at the website in the previous para, which fits Schwartz jars perfectly

I am, by the way, with Elizabeth David when it comes to dried herbs – there really is too much snobbery surrounding them. Basil is one herb where, perhaps, that’s justified, as the dried version tastes nothing like the fresh (which I can only tolerate in tiny amounts as I find it terribly dominant). However, the dried version is very good at imparting a generic herbiness to any dish.

One herb I always use fresh is rosemary. If you read many cookbooks, you’ll come across a great deal of garbage written about rosemary, for much of which I blame Elizabeth David, who seems positively scared of the stuff.

This is what she says in “French Provincial Cooking”:-

“ROSEMARY: A beautiful plant with a powerful aromatic scent, which must be used in cooking only with the utmost care. When rosemary leaves come into contact with heat, they give out a very strong and rather acrid tasting oil, so they should never be added to any stock which is destined to become a consommé or a jelly. Sprigs of rosemary are often used to flavour roast veal and grilled fish but should always be removed before the dish is served, for they spell ruination to every other flavour if you get the spiky little leaves in your mouth.”

Well, I’m sorry, but at the risk of infuriating Ms David’s shade, that’s rubbish. I have no doubt, having lived in continental Europe, she had easy access to the fresh herb, while those in England were often saddled with dried at the time, and yet what she describes doesn’t even come close to my experience of it.

Take the “spiky little leaves” reference. The leaves are (relatively), long and narrow, but spiky they are not, at all (though I can imagine that the dried leaves are spiky**). She’s not alone though – years ago a food writer for the Observer, erm, observed, that while one could use a sprig of rosemary for basting food on the barbecue, in lieu of a brush, nothing more adventurous should be considered even for a moment.

True, it is rather more assertive than, say, parsley, but how David can claim, given her fondness for garlic and horseradish, either of which pretty much defines “dominant,” that rosemary is so overwhelming I really don’t know. As for the “strong and rather acrid tasting oil” no, never encountered that and, trust me, when I use rosemary, I use a lot. I also freeze it in olive oil (protects it from freezer burn), and if it were going to give off acrid oil, it would do it then, when freezing breaks down its cellular structure. It certainly doesn’t do it when cooking with it.

The only thing I can think of to explain this disparity is that there is more than one strain of Rosmarinus officinalis, so off I went to Google, and pitched up on the Royal Horticultural Society’s website and, sure enough, they list 6 different strains.

However, as the RHS is unconcerned with matters culinary, there is no information as to how each tastes – which is a pity – or even which is the most commonly cultivated commercially (or are there yet other strains for that?).

Apparently, yes there are! Wikipedia lists 21 cultivars as “commonly sold” and says there are yet more, so figuring out which strain, or strains, so offended Elizabeth David so long ago is quite impossible.

**Since I wrote this rosemary segment, which is from my blog, I’ve bought some dried rosemary. It is, indeed, spiky and, sadly, smells of very little, a shadow of its fresh self. Still, I only bought it to test my theory, not to use.

You can, in fact, use the olive oil method (olive oil because when frozen it goes hard, protecting herbs from damage), to preserve most herbs in the freezer.  Chillies, too.

Basil is particularly well served in this manner. If you buy a plant and grow it on through the summer, it will rewards you with masses of leaves which can be harvested several times, before they get too big. Pick them on a hot day for maximum flavour, rinse off any dust and insects, dry on kitchen paper then put them in a large plastic food bag. Discard the stalks.

Pour in a liberal dose of oil, and squish the leaves around in it until all are coated. Suck out the air from the bag and seal. Then lay the bag flat, and spread out the contents into a layer about 3mm thick, then freeze. When you need some, simply break off a piece, let it lose some of its chill, then chop or shred it as needed. Don’t let the oil melt and run away – it will have absorbed a lot of flavour.

One oddity – in that I don’t know anyone else who uses the stuff – in my kitchen is a jar of dehydrated vegetables (don’t worry, there’ll be links at the end), which are excellent for adding flavour to, say, a slowly-braised hunk of brisket.

When I get a new batch I tip it into a big sieve and give it a good shake over a clean sheet of baking parchment – get all the vegetable dust out of it and store it in a suitable jar. It makes a good flavouring ingredient.

So, that’s how to store and what to store it in, but what of ingredients?

Obviously, I can’t tell you what you need to buy as I don’t know what you’re going to be cooking, or whether you’re an omnivore, veggie, or a vegan. The best thing I can do is show you what I’ve got (where a brand is mentioned, it’s because I believe that it’s the best available in that particular field).

Let’s start with the cupboard above my workspace, in the kitchen:-

Schwartz Herbs                                and Spice

Mint                                                  Ground Coriander

Oregano                                            Ground Cumin

Rosemary                                          Black Pepper

Coriander leaf

Parsley

Marjoram

Thyme

Plus Garlic Granules – never sure if this comes under herbs or spice.

In bulk I have:-

Basil

Sage

Oregano  (bought in error, I already have loads)

Mint

Coriander leaf

Coriander seed

Cumin seed

The reason for the last 4 is that I’m experimenting with home-made Harissa, as the commercial variety has too much mint for my taste. I also want to roast and grind the spices myself – should get a better flavour.

Next we have Sauces:-

HP

HP Fruity, both very useful, used with care.

Worcestershire Sauce

Kikkoman Soy Sauce

Sharwood’s Rich Soy Sauce

It’s a rare stew that doesn’t get a splash of soy. You won’t taste it, but it does add depth to the flavour. It adds salt too, as do many other ingredients, so never add any actual salt until you check the seasoning right at the end.

Stock ingredients next:-

Every dish starts with a Kallo Organic Vegetable cube or two.

Kallo Organic Beef cubes

Knorr Chicken cubes

Knorr Vegetable cubes

Oxo (beef)

Bovril

Marmite

Marigold Swiss Vegetable Bouillon Powder

Marigold Swiss Vegetable Bouillon Reduced Salt

There’s also a vegan version, but it tastes of very little, so I don’t bother with it even though, with it, many of my veggie dishes would be vegan – but I’m not.

And finally for this section, Odds and Sods:-

Harissa, both bought and home-made

Mild Curry Powder (Schwartz)

Onion Powder (good, with grated cheese and Smash for a quick snack)

Dehydrated Vegetables

Malt Vinegar (Sarsons), a small bottle, kept to hand and refilled as needed

Last, but by no means least, there is sea salt. For general seasoning and bread-making I use fine sea salt, usually from Just Ingredients (link at the end), good quality and the price is reasonable. Not as reasonable as I could get it for in Liverpool, but Liverpool might as well be on the moon as far as my chances of getting there are concerned. For cooking I use Maldon Sea Salt flakes for everything, especially vegetables. The stuff tastes amazing and it improves anything you put it in. Greens, especially, seem to perk right up.

In my American fridge are all the ingredients that need to be refrigerated, or at any rate, refrigerated once opened. For our purposes the come in two classifications, Stock Ingredients and Odds and Sods, so:-

More Stock Ingredients:-

Heinz Tomato Ketchup

Heinz Organic Tomato Ketchup

Geo. Watkin’s Mushroom Ketchup

Nam Pla (South-east Asian fish sauce)

Encona Sweet Chilli Sauce

Balsamic Vinegar

Aspall Apple Balsamic Vinegar

Sherry Vinegar

Oyster Sauce

Kikkoman Teriyaki Sauce

Knorr Touch of Taste Beef (liquid stock concentrate)

Knorr Touch of Taste Chicken

There’s also a vegetable version of ToT – but it’s disgusting!

You’ll read a lot of anti-stock-cube prejudice, mostly from pro chefs who have minimum-wage proles slaving away making stock for them. We don’t have that privilege. We have cubes, powders and liquid concentrates.

The trick, I’ve discovered over the half century and more since I unwrapped my first Oxo cube (there was a time when beef Oxo or Bovril was all there was), is not to get too tightly focused on a single product – blend them.

A Kallo organic veg cube is the basis for all my stock, just as a good casserole of soup starts with a bunch of diced vegetables (I favour Echalion shallots and/or strong cooking onions, well-flavoured carrots like Sweet Spear, and celeriac), but don’t run away with the idea that they all taste the same. Dear me, no.

For a lamb casserole I won’t use lamb cubes, because they’re horrible and lamb is strongly-flavoured anyway. I’ll use one Kallo veg, a dribble each of  Touch of Taste Beef and Chicken, a lick of soy sauce and maybe a touch of mushroom ketchup. It’ll still taste mainly of the lamb, but it will have much more intensity than lamb along could give it.

And if you think beef and chicken are weird things to put with lamb, bear in mind that classical French cooking was – and still is to a degree – heavily based on veal stock and never came to any harm.

For a beef stew I’ll likely use, along with the Kallo veg, ToT Beef plus a little Bovril or an Oxo cube, soy sauce, and a squirt of ketchup

You want your stocks to enhance the flavour of your main ingredient(s), not replace it, and that’s a skill that comes with experience. I can’t tell you how to do it (though I could show you), simply because until relatively recently I never wrote anything down and never measured or weighed anything** – I cooked entirely by instinct and carried my recipes in my head.

**Except when baking, where precision is essential.

As I’ve said, a few times in here, I have a knack – a talent, if you like – for knowing how combinations of ingredients will taste in the finished dish. I don’t know how that works – I’m just very happy that it does.

 ***

Odds and Sods:-

Sainsbury’s French Mayo

Maille Mayo with a hint of mustard (Dijon mustard, in fact)

Sweet Paprika (I buy this in bulk and keep it in a PET jar)

Cayenne pepper (another ingredient for my home-made Harissa)

Sesame oil (light, the dark is rather dominant

Milk Powder (for baking)

Eggs (the freezing of which I’ve covered in this post)

Assorted cheeses; vintage Cheddar, sheep’s, goat’s, Wensleydale, Stilton, White Stilton, Cheshire, depending on what I fancy .

Butter, currently a kilo of President for clarifying, which means there is also

Clarified butter

Country Life for general use and baking

Clover

Pickled baby beetroot (Baxters)

Pickled baby beetroot (Home-made)

And that’s it.

NB: I don’t eat low-fat anything. Low fat foods are an abomination and, of course, the body needs fat. It also needs cholesterol – the nervous system’s myelin sheaths, the insulation of the nerves, are mainly cholesterol. If I want to reduce my fat intake I simply eat less fatty food.

All of the foregoing represents what I always have in stock. There are also a few fresh vegetables that I always have:-

Potatoes, of some sort

Sweet Spear carrots, from Sainsbury’s

Echalion Shallots, once only from Sainsbury’s, now widely available. Sainsbury’s are still the best quality though

Strong cooking onions, also from Sainsbury’s. I tend to use these mixed with shallots for a better flavour than just using one of them on its own

Celeriac, a root with a lot of waste but a great flavour. The cut surfaces will go brown, but I’ve found that wrapping them in kitchen towel soaked in cider vinegar prevents this without affecting the flavour. The flesh of celeriac is naturally mottled brown – ignore it.

Root veg keep for an incredible length of time in an American fridge, it seems to be a feature of the type. Brussels sprouts keep well too, but other greens don’t. I tend to favour greens of some sort in a casserole, usually Brussels sprouts or Pak Choi. The latter are very poor quality in winter, though – I suspect they’re grown in hothouses, and they go very soft when cooked when, the rest of the year, they stay firm.

The freezer contains vegetables, chips, rosti, roast potatoes, pies, fish, faggots in gravy, and home-made ready meals or, at least, the main component of a meal, just needing spuds and, say, peas to complete it. Currently I have half a dozen portions of a lamb casserole with dates and Harissa, which is excellent, and several portion of Quorn sausages with baked beans, which are just OK.

Also in the freezer is rosemary frozen in olive oil, which I covered near the beginning, as well as frozen chopped garlic and chillies, and a whole lot more besides, but telling you exactly what means dragging it all out and making copious notes, which is too much hassle. It will suffice to say that my freezer is very much not a place to keep food until it’s old enough to throw away!

Into the home straight, now, and back in the kitchen where, you will recall, I have a dead fridge freezer which I use as a cupboard. I also have an old fridge which I treat similarly – but that still works should I need it too, What that mostly contains is cartons of Napolina Passata, and supplies for my Dolce Gusto machine, plus a box of  Brita Maxtra water filters and a couple of retired mocha pots.

In the freezer section of the dead one is a load of cans – mac & cheese, tomatoes, Spag Bol, and an assortment of canned soups. There are, as well, red lentils, both organic and common as muck, several kilos of dried fruit, for cake, a mixed bag of dried pulses – peas, pinto beans, butter beans, haricot beans, along with Basmati rice.

A few feet away, just inside the living room on the end of a desk, are several shelves containing a selection of Napolina canned pulses – borlotti beans, cannellini beans, butter beans, chick peas, plus more dried pulses, tiny Spanish chick peas, Alubia Blanca – a Spanish bean similar to cannellini, a jar of paella rice, some more Basmati,  and, on top of my sausage stuffing machine, a couple of sacks of Judion de la Granja – giant Spanish butter beans.

And that’s almost it. All that’s left now is the fridge section of the dead one, and there is just so much stuff in there I’m going to have to drag that out and make notes.

There’s just no other way but, first, I need to eat…

And I did, but I was away longer than I expected – I’m in a bad place at present, hard to concentrate – and it’s now the next day. Ah well…

So, in the fridge section of the dead fridge freezer there is, almost inevitably, some duplication as when it comes to foodstuff with a long shelf life I tend to take advantage of special offers. I’ve ignored those items, though as repetition will add nothing of value.

The whole thing – as no one group dominates – comes under the heading of Odds and Sods…

For openers, then, I have two 1-litre bottles of Sainsbury’s own brand extra virgin olive oil. Surprisingly, the quality is pretty decent – good enough to dunk bread in, if that’s your thing – I mostly use it in bread-making and cooking. I buy it in a 2-litre can, and decant it into the bottles to make it easier to handle. And it’s slightly cheaper than buying 2 bottles, always assuming they have them in stock, which they often don’t.

There’s a couple of jars of Schwartz Mixed Spice, too, for cakes.

Bisto Best gravy granules are very good for perking up and thickening stocks, and most are vegetarian-friendly. I have:-

Beef

Caramelised onion

Vegetable

Roasted Vegetable

If you are vegetarian (I’m probably best described as a part-time veggie), much of the Bisto range is veggie-friendly, and some even suitable for vegans – check out their website.

I have a large can of Tate & Lyle’s Golden Syrup, fantastic stuff on porridge, and a smaller can of their Treacle. I can’t recall why I bought the latter but what the hell? It’ll keep.

I know why I have the Meridian Barley Malt Extract, though – a small amount goes into every loaf I make, as part of the starter. Not essential, but it gets the yeast off to a flying start.

There’s also golden caster sugar (my default sugar for most uses), plus Demerara for cakes.

At the opposite end of the taste spectrum is a large bottle of Sarson’s Malt Vinegar from which I top up the smaller bottle that lives in the cupboard over my workspace. Always keep vinegar tightly stoppered  as, counter-intuitively, it attracts flies.

One thing I’m never without – I always have two drums, one in use, one as backup – is Smash. There’s a lot of snobbery about Smash and, it’s true to say, if you follow the instructions, you’ll get a very small portion of rubbish mash. Do it my way, and you won’t.

60g Smash

A knob of softened butter or a dollop of extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and black pepper to taste but, remember, you’re seasoning for the much larger finished portion, not the small amount of dried spud.

Dijon mustard, to taste.

Boiling water

Season, then give the dry mix a good stir. Pour over boiling water, stirring briskly, until smooth but a bit stiff. If there’s any sign of white flakes, add more water

Make a hole and bury the butter. Wait a few minutes for it to melt then stir it in. Or use olive oil.

Stir in the mustard, if using, and serve.

Personally, I think mustard goes better with olive oil than butter.  And a couple of teaspoons of dried parsley can be good, too

Get it right and it’ll be as good a freshly-made mash.

There are a few cans of emergency food tucked away in there, too:-

Spam

Hunger Breaks All Day Breakfast

Rice pudding

Mushy peas

Plus a lonely pack of black peppercorns, a jar or redcurrant jelly, and a bunch of freezer trays for freezing casseroles (soup goes in bags), and ready meals (home-made, of course).

And that, finally, brings us to the end of my ingredients stash, except for one last item, which lives in my back-up freezer in the bedroom – my bread flour.

Flour, having a very low moisture content, freezes well (and at a pinch can be used straight from the freezer). It’s best to over-bag it with recycled carrier bags in case the paper sacks freeze to the shelves – this has happened to me once, and I lost a lot of flour as the bags tore open. Made a hell of a mess too.  I buy my flour directly from Shipton Mill. I’ve tried most of the flours on the market and it’s by far the best, once you get used to its characteristics. This is what I currently have tucked away:-

Organic Strong Plain White (701) – Weight- 2.5kg; 2 Bags

Organic Stoneground 100% Wholewheat Flour (703) – Weight- 2.5kg; 2 Bags

Organic Light Rye Flour – Type 997 (601) – Weight- 1kg; 2 Bags

Organic Spelt Wholemeal Flour (407) – Weight- 1kg; 2 Bags

Canadian Strong White Bread Flour (112) – Weight- 1kg; 1 Bag

Plus a kilo of Red Fermipan yeast (this, too, freezes well and keeps for years; it can be, and is, used directly from the freezer). It’s the pack that’s red, by the way, not the yeast. In my view this is by far the best yeast for home bread-making, allowing the full flavour of the bread to come through, not obscured by the taste of the yeast. It can be hard to come by – I get mine here.

Links:-

The items listed are what I buy there. They do, of course, sell much more.

For bulk spices, herbs, and pulses, plus dried fruit, baking ingredients, and a wide variety of “alternative” bits and bobs, try Healthy Supplies.

Dehydrated vegetables and really good fine sea salt at a sensible price, Just Ingredients.

Pretty much everything else comes from Tesco, Sainsbury’s, or Ocado/Waitrose. And if you’re contemplating having your groceries and other household stuff delivered, as I do (I’m housebound, since you ask), be aware that only Tesco allows you to nominate what you want as substitutions when they don’t have the item you asked for, and that Sainsbury’s and Ocado delivery charges are wildly excessive, especially for singletons who might not spend in excess of £40 a time. Mind you, I’m single and I’m having real trouble staying below £60 some weeks.

Yes, I could eat more cheaply, but as long as I can afford to pay for quality, I intend to continue doing so. Eating well on the poverty line, which I was doing before the excellent, but rather over-exposed, Ms. Jack Monroe was even born, is doable but as I will not eat “bargain” meat, or pretty much anything labelled Basic or Value – largely synonyms with crap – that would mean a return to wholefood vegetarianism.

Not a problem. Been there before, I can do it again.

 ***

OK then, I’m winding this up now, mainly because every time I look at this file, I get the urge to add to it, a process which might well be interminable, so at 4.8k words and 14 A4 pages, I think that’s quite enough for now. Anything else that occurs to me, like freezing eggs, can go in new posts as, indeed, the egg one has already (linked to in the Fridge section)..

My next project, possibly later today, is going to be a cooking diary. That’s because even some people who know me well think I cook on a regular basis. I don’t, because I’m too ill to do so, and getting worse. I’m doing well if I can cook once a week, and that will either be stock for the freezer or a casserole that I’ll live on for the next week. As long as the food is good – and it is – I’d far rather eat my own stuff even if it is the same every night for a week, than eat chemical-laden and highly dubious ready meals, which would be my only alternative. Again, been there – don’t want to do that again though!

And eating the same meals can have an unexpected bonus. Last night I finished a casserole of Toulouse sausages and cannellini beans, which has left me with maybe a pint and a half of stock, heavy with beans, peas, vegetables and flavour. To it I’m going to add some light vegetable stock to thin it out a tad, and a little home-made Harissa, and that, after spending the night back in the fridge to allow the Harissa time to infuse, and served with good bread, will give me a couple of portions of really good, spicy, and above all, nourishing, soup.

And now I really am finished!

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